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ClearDot.gif (85 bytes) Human Rights and Voting in Guatemala 
. . . . . .
By Matthew Kraft

Editor's Note: Matthew Kraft has traveled throughout South America teaching indigenous populations and working for social justice.

On November 9th, 2003, Guatemalan citizens voted in the fifth national elections since the reestablishment of democracy in 1985. Voting in Guatemala is both a privilege and a risk. The country has been embroiled in civil war for most of the last half century, and mounting political violence has recently left thirty political leaders and activists. 

In addition, Efrain Rios Montt, former military dictator, was running for office, raising serious questions about the integrity of the electoral process. "Voters, candidates, and those reporting on the elections could lose their lives simply for exercising their right to vote or carrying out their professional responsibilities," warned Amnesty International.

I learned of the situation in Guatemala while traveling in southern Mexico. I soon crossed the border and joined a national network of Guatemalan students and volunteers working as human rights observers under The Center for Legal Action for Human Rights (CALDH). We were to monitor the many political parties participating in the elections, observe the voting process and denounce human rights violations. In the weeks before the elections, I traveled across the highland province of Quetzaltenango with CALDH regional coordinator, Gabriela Munez training other volunteers from indigenous villages.

On election day, I arose at 4:30 and dressed quickly, pulling over my jacket an observer vest emblazoned with a huge Egyptian hieroglyphic eye. Beneath it was written Somos tus Ojos Guatemala - We are your eyes Guatemala. I hurried down quiet cobblestone streets to meet Gabby. Though we'd mostly traveled the countryside in brilliantly colored 1950's US bluebird school buses that looked like pieces of functional art, that day we took Gabby's father's 1982 Corolla for a 30 mile drive over a mountain pass to Angahuana, an agricultural community nestled in fertile valley. We talked about our fears and hopes for this important moment in Guatemalan history.

"I got another phone call last night," said Gabby, after a moment of silence.

For the past several weeks anonymous callers had threatened her to keep her mouth shut and stay away from politics. She was determined to do exactly the opposite. It wasn't so bad in Quetzaltenango, but in the rural provinces, civil war paramilitaries maintained a strong influence. In the past weeks, remobilized paramilitaries had kidnapped reporters, blockaded roads, and threatened violence if Rios Montt and his political party, the Guatemalan republican Front (FRG) lost the elections.

When we reached Angahuana, villagers in their Sunday best were already gathered in the voting center in the agricultural market. We gave volunteer credentials to local observers, having had to forge them the night before because we had not received enough. During an earlier visit these indigenous volunteers had told how several town council meetings had been stopped after sympathizers of rival political parties had come to blows. Once, a local official shot an opposing party member in the ankle during a political rally, but was not charged because he was of the same party as the local police. 

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